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Western Press Review: From Russia's Gazprom To The Balkans

Prague, 25 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary and analysis in today's Western press looks at a variety of issues, from Russia's Gazprom gas monopoly to the Middle East. The EU common currency, the Bonn agreement, missile defense, and the Balkans are also discussed, among other issues.


A "Financial Times" editorial says: "The European Commission is understandably fed up with the failure of retail banks to reduce the high cost of cross-border transactions in euros. According to a survey for the commission, published this month, the average cost of transferring 100 [euros] to another euro-zone country is 17.63 [euros]. With only five months to go to the introduction of euro notes and coins, consumers can expect a better deal. Excessive charges undermine the single market and public confidence in the euro. [The] banks have been far too slow to address these problems."

The paper suggests several reasons behind the higher charges: "There is no common euro-zone payment system for low-value transactions, which limits automated processing. The volume of payments is not large, preventing economies of scale. Of course, the euro-zone needs a common payments system. If it had one, especially one formed from the merger of national payment systems, costs could be pared back. But creating such an organization takes time, money, and unprecedented cooperation between financial institutions. If banks are forced to provide a service at less than cost price they may simply choose no longer to provide it."


Another editorial in the "Financial Times" says that the deal struck on the Kyoto Protocol in Bonn earlier this week was less than ideal, but "certainly better than a breakdown in negotiations." It writes: "Industrialized countries achieved their main aims. European nations got a binding agreement. Concessions were offered to countries, such as Japan, that would have found meeting their greenhouse-gas emission reduction targets by 2008-2012 extremely difficult."

The editorial adds: "With little economic pain, the signatories should now be able to stand by their commitments. [But] logic dictates that if the burden is easily manageable, the protocol will hardly slow global warming. [The] overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming is real and is caused by greenhouse gases. But huge uncertainty persists over the likely costs of this warming, which parts of the world will have to bear them and the cost of stabilizing greenhouse-gas concentrations at lower levels. Given the speed at which the world seems to be warming, no one should be surprised if a consensus emerges that more stringent measures to combat global warming will be needed."

The editorial goes on to say that "If future negotiations are needed, two crucial issues cannot be avoided. First, as the problem is global, the U.S. will have to be involved. Second, developing countries will have to take part in target setting and emissions trading. Countries would ultimately have to agree to some form of target level of greenhouse-gas emissions per person, one that bore some relationship to equality."


In "The Wall Street Journal Europe," analyst William Browder writes that Russian President Vladimir Putin "took an important step in fighting Russia's endemic corruption by firing the head of Gazprom, Russia's natural-gas monopoly. [But] Mr. Putin now faces an equally important task: putting an end to the outdated two-tiered Gazprom share structure that has benefited a few well-connected insiders."

Browder explains that when Gazprom was privatized in 1992, management "knew that the shares were going to be sold cheaply and didn't want foreign investors to snap them up and drive up the price. [Soon] after privatization, management lobbied for laws that forbade foreigners from owning the shares." The consequences, Browder writes, "have been disastrous for both Russia and Gazprom investors. [Most] foreigners don't want to buy Gazprom shares of any kind. Major financial institutions are frightened of iffy schemes to buy local shares, and shun the shares designated for foreigners. [Accordingly,] Gazprom stock has languished."

Instead of this system, he says, "Putin might easily keep Gazprom under Russian control without depressing its share price. The government could free up the trading of both domestic and foreign shares, while issuing a new class called 'golden shares.' These new shares would have no economic rights, but would give the government majority voting rights on key decisions like mergers, divestitures, and takeovers."


In "The New York Times," columnist Thomas Friedman considers the controversial issue of missile defense. He describes the arguments offered by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush in favor of the system as "at best, incoherent and at worst, dishonest."

Friedman notes that during the Gulf War, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had access to poison gas warheads. But he didn't use them, nor did he use poison gas in the Scud missiles he fired at Israel. "Why not?" Friedman asks. The answer: "Classic deterrence. He knew the Israelis would destroy Baghdad."

This, Friedman continues, "gets to the core problem with the Bush approach to missile defense. It is based on flimsy or dishonest arguments, including: (1) We need a missile shield because the Cold War doctrine of mutual assured destruction, or MAD, is out of date. The truth [is that] we will continue to rely on MAD for decades to come." Flimsy argument number two, Friedman says, is: "Classic deterrence can't be relied upon to work against rogues because they are crazy."

The Bush administration tells these falsehoods, Friedman says, because it is "obsessed with missile defense. So to justify spending $1 billion on a system to deter rogues who are already deterred by classic deterrence they have to make exaggerated claims that we are in a new era and the old ways won't work." Missile defense, Friedman says, "has to be judged by what it really is -- a defense system that will always be, at best, a supplement to mutual assured destruction, which is neither out of date nor going away."


In a contribution to "The Christian Science Monitor," author Paul Loeb raises the question of whether a missile defense system is a viable and desirable defense against a real and imminent threat, or whether there is an underlying economic incentive behind the motivation to develop it. He quotes an employee of one of the U.S.'s largest defense contractors, Lockheed Martin, as saying: "Let's get real. We all know that if anyone ever attacks America, the bomb is going to be delivered by a suitcase, a car, a truck, or in a boat. It's not going to come from a missile, because you can track where a missile comes from and retaliate. We all know that we're lobbying for these programs because they make us money. We don't care whether they'll ever work, or even be useful."

Loeb writes: "I'm not saying that all who embrace the national missile defense proposals do so for venal reasons. Some do believe in them. [But] we've spent $45 billion on star-wars systems and $95 billion on total missile defense efforts since [former U.S. president Ronald] Reagan embraced the idea, with little beyond failed tests to show for it."

Loeb writes: "Do we have the political honesty, like the Lockheed Martin employee who spoke out, to acknowledge that this entire proposal may be largely about political payback? The true shield it's designed to create would not protect people and communities. But it would protect the massive profits of the companies that build it -- whatever the costs to the rest of us."


U.S. and European attitudes toward the situation in the Balkans are the subject of several commentaries in the German press today. The editorial in "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" calls for a clear stance. It says that Western engagement has not been entirely voluntary, and that the ethnic barbarity that was taking place in a fragmenting Yugoslavia -- and near to the EU countries -- forced the West to get involved.

However, the paper says, this involvement has led to misunderstandings. The Albanian National Liberation Army, or UCK, has until recently been under the illusion that the Western allies were not judges, but allies. "It was a mistake," the paper says, "to ever let such a misconception come into existence."

President George W. Bush, on his visit to Kosovo yesterday, clearly stated to the U.S. Army -- but not to the Kosovo-Albanian politicians -- that the political progress in Kosovo is too slow. And he added that Kosovo must not serve as a safe haven for rebels. These clear statements, says the editorial, can shed more light on the problems and render the role of the West more credible.


The role of the U.S. in the Balkans is also the subject of a commentary by Peter Muench in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung." Muench writes: "When the time comes again for trans-Atlantic solidarity, then the Europeans and Americans meet in the Balkans. 'Together in, together out,' President George W. Bush declared on his visit to Kosovo."

But Muench writes that there seem to be some disturbing elements. From the beginning of the campaign in Bosnia and Kosovo, the United States has been suspected of wanting to withdraw its troops. The stabilizing of the Balkans is thus characteristic of an "oscillation" in American politics -- it is difficult to tie the U.S. down and still more difficult to exclude it.

On the one hand, the EU would like to assert itself and deal with the Balkans on its own. But on the other hand, it knows it is incapable of doing so. In any case, Muench says, "as soon as the Europeans take matters into their own hands, the Americans get mightily involved."

He concludes: "Action faces a double dilemma: the Europeans cannot cope with the task on their own and the Americans, despite everything, are apt to get involved in an uncoordinated fashion."


An analysis in the French daily "Le Monde" also looks at U.S. involvement in the Balkans, in light of President George W. Bush's visit to U.S. troops in Kosovo yesterday. "Le Monde" writes that during his visit, Bush reiterated that he would not pull back U.S. troops unilaterally, affirming that the U.S. commitment in the region is essential both politically and militarily.

However, the paper says, the U.S. leader did not neglect to restate his initial position -- that NATO deployment in the region remains stable, but that the assignment of troops should not be indefinite. Bush also, "Le Monde" notes, wanted to firmly state that Kosovo should not be a sanctuary for people conducting uprisings elsewhere -- a pointed reference to members of the Albanian National Liberation Army in Macedonia, which uses Kosovo as a base of operations.

But at the same time, the paper notes, no presidential interviews were anticipated with political leaders, whether Kosovar, Albanian, or Serb. This avoided becoming embroiled "in a conflict that is already quite complex and [allowed] for not legitimating either of the two camps before the introduction of a genuine peace."


A "Los Angeles Times" editorial says that the G-7 plus Russia meeting in Genoa "was almost devoid of content," but that "one specific proposal did emerge. Pressured by its European allies, the U.S. delegation went along with a call for 'third-party monitoring' in the Middle East. The idea is that international monitors would report without bias on the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians and help halt the violence."

The paper continues: "To whom they would report is unclear. [The] mechanics are the least of the proposal's problems. For a start, there is no peace to monitor, only an intermittent war zone, the worst possible place for noncombatant 'peacekeepers.' The monitors would be sitting ducks for Palestinian sharpshooters or Israeli settlement extremists. It's also the case that international monitors from Scandinavia, Italy, and Turkey are already stationed in Hebron and have been utterly ineffectual."

The "Los Angeles Times" notes that "The Palestinian Authority has called the idea a 'positive step,' apparently in the belief that internationalizing the conflict could put more pressure on Israel to come to favorable terms. Allowing Arafat to hide behind monitors would not encourage peace, which can come only from direct negotiations," the paper says.